Mit großer Trauer müssen wir bekanntgeben, dass am 10. Oktober 2023 Eva Kollisch verstorben ist.
2012 erhielt sie den Theodor Kramer Preis für Schreiben im Widerstand und im Exil. Die Preisbegründung lautete damals:
Eva Kollisch hat uns gezeigt, was Exil bedeutet, schon bevor man ins Ausland muss. Sie hat aufs Eindringlichste geschildert, was Kinder einer Minderheit erleben, wenn sie ausgegrenzt werden. Sie hat uns eine ungenügend bekannte Schattenseite von Österreich vor dem Anschluß vorgeführt, aus der hellwachen Perspektive eines hochintelligenten Kindes, dem der Boden unter den Füßen entzogen wird. Ihre ganze Kindheit sei eine "Meditation über Macht und Machtlosigkeit" gewesen, meint sie, und zu diesem Thema hat sie Entscheidendes beigetragen. Als Erwachsene, im Ausland und in der Freiheit, hat sie die Konsequenz ihrer frühen Erfahrungen gezogen und sich politisch und schriftstellerisch engagiert für Gleichberechtigung und ein humaneres Zusammenleben von Menschen verschiedener Herkunft. Es ist ihr Verdienst, die Enttäuschungen, die ihr auf diesem Weg begegnet sind, ebenso klarsichtig darzustellen wie die Hoffnungen. Ihr Werk ist eine wichtige Bereicherung für unser Verständnis der Exilerfahrung.
This is an obituary provided by the family.
Eva Kollisch, a memoirist, professor and longtime anti-war and feminist activist, died October 10th at the age of 98. In her long, eventful life Eva experienced the history of the 20th century up close, as a Vienna-born refugee from Nazism, a factory and labor organizer in Detroit, running a trailblazing coffee house in Greenwich Village in the the heyday of the Beat Generation, protesting against the Vietnam War, and as an openly lesbian voice in the gay rights and women’s movements of the 1970s.
Her two books, Girl in Movement and The Ground Under My Feet, explored two formative experiences of her early life, her escape from Nazi-occupied Austria as a teenager and her involvement in labor organizing as a member of a radical Trotskyist sect called the Workers Party.
Eva was born in Vienna, Austria, and raised in a liberal secular Jewish family that traced its roots in Austria back to the 17th century. Her father Otto Kollisch was an eminent architect Her mother, Margarete Kollisch, was a widely published poet who worked as a journalist and translator for the French Embassy, and who had a correspondence with Albert Einstein. In March, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, Eva watched as her neighbors cheered the Nazis with the Heil Hitler salute. Then the family’s house was raided at night. In the spring of 1939, Eva and her two brothers escaped from Austria to England on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort that allowed some 10,000 Jewish children (but not their parents) to escape from Nazi occupied countries. About 90 percent of those children never saw their parents again.
Fortunately, Eva and her brothers were reunited with their parents in the U.S., in 1940. The family lived in a small apartment on Staten Island in New York, a far cry from their prosperous life and elegant home in Vienna. But she remembered those early days in a new country, with few possessions, little family income and the newfound freedom from fear as the happiest times she had with her parents.
Restless and intellectually curious, by the age of 16 Kollisch was already engaged by politics and movements for social change. She joined a radical group inspired by Leon Trotsky, which described itself as a “Third Camp” because it both advocated socialism and opposed the policies of Stalin. Her teenage activism took her to Detroit where she worked on an assembly line for the war effort, leaping onto the hoods of Jeeps as they rolled down the line to attach windshield wipers. She sought to convince fellow workers to join the Trotyskist movement. Few did.
But that’s not what discouraged her and ultimately convinced her to break from the Marxist sect. She told oral historians it was the group’s top down bureaucracy, the stifling rules and the domineering men at the top of the organization. who ordered the teenager not to seek a college education and to marry a comrade of their choosing instead.
Her embrace and ultimate disillusionment with the radical group was dramatized in a recent Mandy Patinkin-narrated podcast produced for the Leo Baeck Institute, “From Refugee to Revolutionary,” which shares how she left the party to look for a different path.
And she found it in Greenwich Village with its assortment of poets, artists and bookish intellectuals. By then she was married to the abstract expressionist painter Gert Berliner, a fellow refugee.
With Gert and several friends, Eva founded the groundbreaking Cafe Rienzi on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, a time when espresso and cappuccino were barely known in America. Eva and her partners converted a former noodle factory into a Beat generation gathering spot now remembered in histories of Greenwich Village for having been frequented by Alllen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and other artists and intellectuals.
With some modest earnings from the Rienzi, Eva and Gert headed west to the tiny village of Chupadero, New Mexico, where they lived in an adobe and where Gert painted and Eva wrote. Eva scraped together a living working as a cook at a uranium mine and then as a social worker. While in New Mexico, Eva gave birth to her son Uri, now a journalist with NPR. Eva and Gert split up in 1959 after they had moved back to Greenwich Village.
Eva focused on her academic career. And in 1963, she began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, where she became recognized as a pioneer in feminist studies. With Gerda Lerner in 1972 she co-founded the college’s graduate program in women’s history while also serving as a professor of comparative literature and as chair of the German department in a career that spanned more than three decades. She was openly lesbian during a time time when this was virtually unheard of in academia, or elsewhere, and she was active in the feminist movement for women’s rights.
At Sarah Lawrence she worked closely with her colleague and Greenwich Village neighbor, the writer and activist Grace Paley and was jailed in support of anti-war protests of the Vietnam era of the 1960s.
Eva’s great and long-lasting relationship was with the poet Naomi Replansky, a National Book Award finalist. They met at a reading by Grace Paley and got on to discussing French and German literature. Eva and Naomi lived together on the Upper West Side for nearly 40 years, writing and reading, and participating in the Commmunity Meditation Center in their neighborhood, and remaining politically active.
Eva and Naomi were honored with the Clara Lemlich Award from the LaborArts organization which honors recipients for social activism. Eva’s organizing skills sparked a final social activism project – the Older Women’s Network. Eva’s idea was that older women could provide mutual support and assist one another as they aged with medical needs, food, transportation and emotional support. For over 20 years OWN met regularly in the Westbeth Artists Housing complex in Greenwich Village.
Kollisch was one of 12 Austrian and German refugees interiewed by the filmaker Egon Humer for his documentary Emigration, N.Y. The Story of an Expulsion. In 2012 Kollisch received Austria’s Theodor Kramer Prize, which recognizes writers in exile.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Eva and Naomi were featured in The New York Times as examples of endurance and resiliency —- two women who between them had survived the Spanish Flu, the Depression and the Holocaust and were still going, hopeful and grateful for life in its variety and blessings.
Quietly in her old age, Eva integrated insights from Buddhism and the practice of meditation, helping her face mortality with calm strength and equanimity. As she became more frail she still enjoyed walks in her neighborhood, music, books, dark chocolate, and Naomi’s companionship.
Naomi died at the age of 104 on January 7th; Eva’s health gradually faded in the months that followed.
She is survived by her son Uri Berliner, daughter-in-law Mary-Elizabeth Berliner and her grandson, Ben Berliner, all of Washington D.C.